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When Senior Capt. Graciela Tiscareño-Sato graduated from flight school in the Spring of 1991, she stood before her class during graduation and announced proudly she wanted to fly an F-15 E Strike Eagle Combat Jet.
Tiscareño-Sato was third in her class. Yet, despite her merits, she would not get to pilot her dream aircraft because she’s a woman.
Two years later, in 1993, the Pentagon dropped the prohibition on women flying in combat missions and by 1995 Martha McSally became the first female fighter pilot to fly in an A-10 Thunderbolt II for combat in Iraq.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter gave women a tremendous victory in the military, ordering to open all military jobs to women – including arguably the most dangerous positions in combat: infantry on the frontlines for the U.S. Marine Corps.
The landmark decision is being met with ubiquitous praise, particularly from Hispanic female veterans and active service members who for decades have blazed trails for minority women in the ranks of the armed forces.
“They come home with the same combat battle scars as males do. I know, I see them in the work I do for them every day. Women have been vital to every theater of war.”
“For those of us who have served – finally,” said Tiscareño-Sato, who served nine-and-a-half years as a KC-135R Tanker navigator and instructor in the Air Force before retiring in 1999. “I was denied my first choice. What this decision means is women will not be denied anymore.”
Tiscanero-Sato, who is now an author, said Tuesday’s announcement is a major turning point in history.
“That’s great for our country, that we will have the best talent on the frontlines and leading,” she said.
Active duty, inactive and veteran women in the military will tell you that Thursday’s decision reinforces what they already know to be true – women are and have been in combat missions for years.
The number of Hispanic women enlisted in the U.S. armed forces has gone up five times since 2003. Latinas accounted for 10 percent of the total number of enlisted women in the military in 2003. The numbers climbed to 48 percent in 2015, according to the Department of Defense Manpower Requirements Report.
Capt. Olivia Joy Chavez, 41, is a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Air National Guard who currently serves in the inactive reserves. As a CH-47 Chinook Combat Pilot, she flew combat missions in Afghanistan in 2009 and is the only Latina and female of color to ever fly under the South Carolina state flag. Chavez said Thursday’s decision recognizes that women make the same sacrifices as men and are just as capable.
“We go in knowing what we are going to give up,” Chavez, a single mother, said. “You go wherever your military or country needs you. When you are a commissioned officer, you choose that. I gave up Christmases and birthdays. My son is 20 years old. I cannot count 20 times that I have been with him for monumental occasions in his life because I chose my career in the military for him and my family.”
Over the past few years, women have moved into more and more military jobs previously offered only to men, including on Navy submarines and in Army artillery units. Three women recently became the first to take and pass the Army’s elite Ranger course.
Still, the Marine Corps sought to keep women out of some jobs citing studies showing certain mixed-gender units in front-line combat jobs aren’t as capable as all-male units.
Latina veterans like Chavez and Tiscareño-Sato adamantly disagree with this notion. They insist that this ruling will make military units weaker.
“They are only going to let the women that are qualified get those jobs,” Tiscareño-Sato said. “You’re not going to pretend that someone can fly an airplane or run artillery. The military trains all their people. Those who don’t academically and physically measure up, they wash out of the program. It happens every day.”
“Every time we would fly from point A to point B there was a possibility of being shot down,” Chavez said of her combat missions in Afghanistan. “My responsibility is to make sure our crew was safe. It didn’t matter that I was a woman. It only mattered that I could fulfill the mission.”
Xiomara A. Sosa, Founder, President and CEO of You are Strong! Center on Veterans Health and Human Services Inc., never served on combat missions but was in the Air Force and a 9/11 survivor in the Pentagon. Today, she advocates for brave veteran women for health and human services and works as a clinical mental health counselor for those who served in The Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They come home with the same combat battle scars as males do,” Sosa said. “I know, I see them in the work I do for them every day. Women have been vital to every theater of war.”